Therapy without Professional Help: A Week in Los Angeles


Culture Diaries

Photograph by Maya Binyam.

July 24, 2022

I live in LA, but I’ve just flown in from New York after a month away, so I wake up early, too early, at 4 A.M., and read a book called Healing Back Pain. The author, John Sarno, is a doctor who argues that most back pain is psychological—the result of tension, which arises from repressed emotion. He makes his perspective sound like the most obvious thing in the world, and makes the common explanations, like sitting too much, sound completely idiotic. Most people have been taught to think of chronic back pain as arising out of an inciting incident and to think of the spine, especially the lower spine, as very fragile—even though, he explains, bodies are resilient and spines exceptionally strong. I want to believe him, because if I do believe him I’ll never feel back pain again, or if I do, I’ll have my delicate psychology to blame, as opposed to an innocent object like my chair. Sarno has a cult following; I google him, careful to read only the testimonials about how the book has changed people’s lives. Then I fall back to sleep.

I wake up again, at 7 A.M., make tea, and open all the mail I got while I was away—health insurance bill; traffic ticket; copies of Dogs of Summer by Andrea Abreu and A Woman’s Battles and Transformations by Édouard Louis; the new Paris Review; and a couple of issues of the London Review of Books. I read a review of Either/Or by Elif Batuman, a book that made me very angry. I was nevertheless gripped by it, as I was by The Idiot, probably because both present a problem that I’m still working out and which I’ve encountered in many novels that I might otherwise be inclined to say I enjoyed. I always feel betrayed by characters with whom I begin to identify—not necessarily because my life or psychology is like theirs, but because I can understand the contours of their journeys and want to follow them through—who then, in brief and passing moments, reveal the limits of their worldview, ushering in black people or poor people or people who speak in halting English as props to signal the boundaries of their otherwise astounding capacities for empathy. I have no interest in reading about characters who are likeable, or about characters who are inclined to like people like me, but I have a hard time not seeing it as a failure of a book’s attention to detail when people are turned into metonyms for cultures and ideologies with which the novel is unwilling to engage; it feels almost like the opposite of virtue signaling: a brief and passing confession that the protagonist is (of course!) burdened by the ugliness of her social class. Almost every review I’ve read of Either/Or mentions Selin’s naive and enthusiastic embrace of great works of literature, which she reads as instruction manuals for how to construct a life; none mentions her stated difficulty in appreciating hip-hop, which she summarizes as an altogether alienating genre of music defined by a man “saying ‘Uh, uh’ in the background.” (“Killing Me Softly” by the Fugees proves, for Selin, to be the exception to the rule, because “the man, despite several false alarms, never did start rapping, and instead a girl sang an old song with beautiful harmonies.”) But I don’t know—obviously Either/Or wasn’t going to be entirely about Selin’s problematic relationship to hip-hop. That would be a horrible book.

Edits on my novel are due next week, so I’ve vowed to do nothing and see no one until I finish. I spend the rest of the morning line editing, and then do a YouTube exercise video that involves flailing my limbs around as if I were lifting and then dropping a series of heavy objects. The couple in the video tries to be motivational and in the process takes a very derogatory stance on exercise, emphasizing how difficult it is and how happy we’ll all be once it’s finally over. Every time they demonstrate something especially excruciating, they repeat that “there are thousands, maybe millions” of other people suffering alongside me, which seems like a gross overestimation of their audience.

I live near USC, and more or less lead the life of a college senior. (I just quit my job.) After lunch, I go to the university coffee shop, and then walk down frat row to the USC dental school. A month ago, my cousin, who owns a dental clinic geared specifically toward Ethiopians, gave me a teeth cleaning and two fillings for free. Last week one of the fillings fell out, however, so I went to the USC dental school to get an emergency replacement. In the waiting room, I read another review in the LRB, of Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, which I had no idea was being reissued. I read the book in college, in a class on Caribbean diasporic literature, and then again a few years later, when I traveled to London for the first time. I had forgotten all of the scenes in which Moses has sexual encounters with men and was surprised and confused to read that Selvon’s “critical reputation was overshadowed by hostile feminist readings,” apparently due to the chauvinism of his characters. I google around, trying to find a so-called hostile feminist reading, but wind up instead reading a blog post by an undergraduate student that fixates on Selvon’s repeated use of the phrase white pussy.

After three hours, a dental student gives me novocaine, and once my mouth is totally numb, her supervisor tells me that I don’t need a filling, that I never needed a filling, and that, in fact, I never had a filling in the first place—all I need to do to fix my problem is use a particular kind of over-the-counter toothpaste. So they give me back my money, and I spend the rest of the afternoon trying to convince myself that I’m happy for the free mouth-numbing experience. When I get home, I line edit my draft for another couple of hours, then fold laundry while listening to the new Beyoncé song, “Break My Soul,” on repeat. When I get sick of that, I listen to “So Good,” an extremely underrated breakup banger from Destiny’s Child’s first album, The Writing’s on the Wall, and then to “Tell Me When to Go” by E-40. During any given two-week period I’ll be listening to the same two or three songs on repeat until they attain such a strong association with whatever it is that I’m living through in the present that I convince myself my life will never move on unless I find two or three new songs to replace them with.

July 25, 2022

I wake up at a slightly more reasonable hour, 5:30 A.M., make tea, and spend a couple of hours reading my draft. I’ve found editing to be like trying to perform therapy without the help of a professional. I’m horrible at outlining and at envisioning a future more generally, so I wrote the first draft intuitively, hardly aware of my motivations and whether they brought the story toward a fuller, more satisfied version of itself or derailed the process of actualization altogether. Revising has been a process of trying to make the novel sound more like itself, and to make it act more in accordance with the internal rules that serve it—doing away with the ones that confuse it, distract it, lead it to self-sabotage.

Late in the afternoon, I decide the only thing that will help me is swimming, so I drive in rush hour traffic to a public pool in Eagle Rock. It costs four dollars to enter, there is barely ever anyone there, and I’m pretty sure they let you bring in whatever you want: food, drinks. Unfortunately, I bring nothing to eat or drink, and by the time I arrive, the sun is setting. LA, like seemingly everywhere else in the world, is extremely hot right now, but when the sun begins to set the heat leaves the air almost completely, no matter the season. I jump in and out of the pool, and while I dry off I read the first few chapters of Abreu’s Summer Dogs. Then I drive, in rush hour traffic, back home. I listen yet again to the new Beyoncé, the old Destiny’s Child, and all the way through Instant Vintage by Raphael Saadiq, which includes one of my favorite love songs of all time, “Still Ray”: “I’m coming home to you / Wear something see-through, so I can see your heart.”

At home, I make dinner (fried zucchini blossoms), and, with my roommates—Greta, a fashion designer, and Calvin, a painter—look at the work of various photographers on Instagram. I have to take an author photo soon and am dreading it, because I hate having my photograph taken. Calvin insists that my photo should be taken in my workspace; it should show me at a desk, or on a chair, so that I can be clearly identified as a writer. But I don’t want to be identified as a writer! I want to be identified as looking good.


July 26, 2022

I wake up to a text from my friend Matt, telling me to read the Roe v. Wade piece in the LRB. It opens with a reflection by Elif Batuman on The Idiot: she, and others, she says, were not inclined to view it as a political text when it was published, but she now realizes the book is an account of the processes by which women and children’s lives are depoliticized. I make tea and read an article about palm oil, from an older issue. The article, by Bee Wilson, is very good—it is about how the oil, once eked from palm fruits pounded by hand and relished for its particular scent and hue, has become a near ubiquitous substitute commodity for other types of oils, one whose value derives from the fact that its presence in food and bath products is nearly undetectable. I am surprised to learn that it was introduced to the English market as a cheap replacement for tallow candles and was marketed as the antislavery alternative: “Every candle of ’em that’s burnt,” read one campaign, from the mid-1800s, “helps to put out a slave.”

I spend the rest of the morning reading over the final chapters of my novel, which aren’t exactly working, but I’m not sure why, or sure how to fix them. After lunch, I decide to drive to Skylight to get a book I’m planning to read alongside my friend Chase, called Will and Testament, by the Norwegian novelist named Vigdis Hjorth. I read Long Live the Post Horn!, also by her, last week. The narrator works for a PR firm representing the country’s postal union, which is facing a directive that would cut the post office’s budget. At a meeting, she encounters a postal worker who describes the lengths he’s gone to in order to find the recipient of a dead letter. That part is wonderful. But then there are a lot of gratuitous offhand descriptions of Somali refugees who seem to add to the narrator’s sense that the city, chaotic and overwhelming, is an affront to her own personal well-being—once again provoking disappointment. Anyway, Skylight doesn’t have the book, so I drive away empty-handed.

I want to find another body of water, but the beach is too far away and the pool is too familiar, so I go by myself to see Jordan Peele’s Nope. It puts me in a terrible mood. There are only three other people in the theater, no one is laughing at the funny moments, and I start crying, which feels like an inappropriate reaction, but Daniel Kaluuya’s minimal acting is affecting, and his character’s relationship with his sister, played by Keke Palmer, seems to me to be a constant and overwhelming negotiation of how to live with grief.

At home I make dinner and then futz with the final-ish edited version of an excerpt of my novel. Then I go on YouTube and watch the season-three finale of The Show about the Show, directed by Caveh Zahedi, which premiered on BRIC TV and then lost its funding. The premise is that each new episode of the show is about the making of the previous episode. Initially, the show is about Zahedi pitching the show to BRIC, getting it green-lit, hiring actors, and so on, but the actors become characters in their own right, in addition to the characters they’re trying to play. So do Zahedi and his family, as the episodes go on: the show acquires the qualities of reality TV—there is romantic drama, family drama, network drama, and the performers begin to experience the show itself as an enclosed space. Almost all of the participants, including his wife, at some point try to escape by refusing to let Zahedi record. He winds up replacing some of them, and sometimes replacing those actors with actors, until the show—which is ostensibly about collaboration (or exploitation: almost everyone, including his family, works on it for free)—functions mostly as documentary evidence of the process by which he becomes almost totally alone. In the season finale, Zahedi is moved by the donations of strangers to a Kickstarter campaign attempting to fund more episodes, but when he watches their short videos about why they’re so attracted to the show, he finds them completely boring. I think the show is really good.


July 27, 2022

I wake up from a series of intense dreams that derail my entire day. In one, I go to see my friend Tavi in a play she’s in, but one of the actors fails to show up, and the director asks me to fill in. I miss all my cues, I can’t remember any of my lines, and when they give me a script to read, I can’t pronounce any of the words.

I eat a mango—LA has the best fruit right now; the fig, pomegranate, and lemon trees in my yard are flourishing—and text Tavi about the dream, which she points out might be an anxiety dream about my book. Then we talk about Nope, which relates to an ongoing conversation we’ve been having about the dynamics on film sets, which hyperbolize the dynamics of other workspaces. The film is extremely self-aware and, to my mind, cynical, in the sense that it is constantly questioning the process and aims of filmmaking: who or what gets used as an object of capture in the attempt to produce mass entertainment. In the opening scenes of the film, Kaluuya’s character, a Hollywood horse wrangler, tries and fails to instruct a group of actors, producers, and directors in best practices for handling a horse on set. No one listens to him, and the horse inevitably becomes frightened. Everyone besides Kaluuya reads the horse’s fear as aggression, and the pair are dismissed from the set.

I finish working on the novel excerpt, and Greta shows me the new styles she’s designing for fall. In her studio, which is next to my studio, on the second floor of our house, I try on a pair of pants to help her figure out how to size them. They’re gray and twill, and although the fit is special, we agree that they feel dated—like something someone might wear in a seventies period piece. Calvin is boxing up paintings for his solo show in New York. The paintings are all contrast—black and white and gray—and depict a series of uncanny, seemingly nonsensical totems: a heart, a boot, thought bubbles. All of my “culture” today is interpersonal. I’m not actually reading or watching anything.

I go to the grocery store to get food for a dinner I’m hosting tomorrow, and then come home and do some cooking prep—blanch collard greens, caramelize a ridiculously large pot full of onions—and make lunch (gem lettuces, yuba, sungolds) while listening to Democracy Now!.

The afternoon goes wrong. I plan to go to the beach, but then it’s too late to go to the beach, so I decide to clean the house, but before I can clean the house I need more caffeine, so I walk to the USC coffee shop. On the way, I realize the Mega Millions has reached $1 billion. Unfortunately, I’m obsessed with the lottery, so my walk becomes consumed by a fantasy of how my life will change if I win, which inevitably turns into a negative fantasy of how my life will be ruined if I win. I get to the coffee shop, which has closed. The barista tells me he’ll give me my iced tea anyway, but then I realize that I’ve forgotten my wallet, so I run out, embarrassed, unable to buy the iced tea that will save my life or the lottery ticket that will ruin it. Once I get home, I drive to McDonald’s, the next best option in the neighborhood for black iced tea. Then I decide to drive half an hour away to the Ethiopian grocery store, to buy injera for the dinner tomorrow. When I get there, however, the owner tells me he’s out of injera. So, I drive home, clean the kitchen, and then realize I’m running extremely late to pick up my friend Dema from LAX. I run around the house trying to get ready, and in the process stub my toe on a hand weight. I don’t think anything of it, but then look down and realize I’ve smeared blood all over the floor. I don’t have time to deal with it, so I just leave.

I drive to LAX with the top down, listening to Charli XCX, grateful for the momentary respite from my week of self-imposed isolation. When Dema gets in, I turn the music off, because we haven’t seen each other in two months. He’s just returned from a writing residency and a tour through Alabama to screen a documentary he produced, which just debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival. In Alabama, Dema and another producer drove around with a TV in their trunk and showed the film to the various people who participated in it. It’s called Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power, and will be streaming on Peacock early next year. The film, which I found to be very arresting and hopeful, though never self-congratulatory or pat, as remembrances of the civil rights era can sometimes be, tells the story of organizers in Lowndes County, Alabama, who secured the right to vote for black residents; it is also about Stokely Carmichael and the evolution of SNCC, and features archival footage interspersed with the testimonials of people who continued to work in Carmichael’s wake.

We eat at a Filipino restaurant and catch up on everything. On the way back to Dema’s house, I play him the old Destiny’s Child song and the new Beyoncé song, which he hasn’t yet heard. After I drop him off, I stop at a gas station, and finally buy my lottery ticket.


July 28, 2022

I wake up late—seven thirty! I boil water for tea, eat some mango, and make pie dough for the dinner I’m hosting, though I have no fruit for pie at home. Then I drive back to the Ethiopian grocery store; there is still no injera on the shelves, so I panic momentarily, but the owner tells me they have more in the back. I buy three packs of it and then drive to another grocery store to scope out the fruit situation. They have rhubarb, so I buy some of that, some strawberries, and some ice cream.

On the way home I listen to the Beyoncé album, Renaissance, which was just released last night. I’m almost completely bored by the first half, but then the second half gets very good. “Thique” and “All Up in Your Mind” are on repeat while I cook: gomen, using the blanched collards from yesterday; misir wot; kik alicha; shiro; the strawberry rhubarb pie; and a batch cocktail, the jungle bird, which has blackstrap rum, Campari, pineapple juice, and lime. I’ve been tasting everything and adjusting for salt, berbere, kororima, mitmita, et cetera, so it isn’t until 2 P.M. that I realize I haven’t had a proper meal. I make a quick salad—gems, yuba, sauerkraut—and then deal with some logistical work stuff (contracts, looking over the TOC for a book I may edit) before calling my dad. He gets my stepmom on the line, and we compare what we’re cooking. She’s making misir wot and kik alicha, too.

I clean my room and bathroom while—once again—listening to “Thique” and “All Up in Your Mind” on repeat. When I like Beyoncé I love her; her sound is so big.

Dema, Chase, and Adrian come over for dinner. Greta and Calvin are there too. While we eat, we listen all the way through the Raphael Saadiq album and Erika de Casier’s Sensational, and then get into a huge argument over Beyoncé. One person, whom I won’t name, claims that she isn’t an artist—that she has no vision. Other people, whom I agree with, tell the first person that just because they don’t like her vision doesn’t mean she doesn’t have one. Over dessert, we play a game that some of us have played before. One person chooses an affect or feeling, and then everyone goes around and plays a song that, for them, epitomizes that feeling. We start with “angry,” and I play “Your Life’s On the Line,” the Ja Rule diss track by 50 Cent, which leads to the discovery that no one but me experiences anger on a regular basis—everyone else relates more to being “sad,” so we do that next. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to a sad song in my life. Eventually, I ask people to do “boundary maintenance,” which confuses everyone. I start with “Next to You” by Mike Jones, Adrian plays “No Games” by Serani, Dema plays “I Will Survive,” Chase plays “Shadow” by Ashlee Simpson, Greta plays “DFMU” by Ella Mai, Calvin plays “Keep the Family Close” by Drake. All good but, I think “I Will Survive” is the best: “Go on now, go, walk out the door / Just turn around now / ‘Cause you’re not welcome anymore.” Boundary maintained! The final category is “horny.” After that, everyone goes home.


July 29, 2022

I didn’t win the lottery! Life goes on.

Chase is hosting a pool party in the Simi Valley. The drive is exactly as long as Renaissance plus an extra ten minutes, which gives me enough time to listen to “Thique” and “All Up in Your Mind” twice. We swim and then Chase cooks a beautiful, gigantic meal on the grill. Someone says something that reminds me of Healing Back Pain, so I start describing it, and it turns out two people there have had their back pain almost completely relieved by John Sarno.

Someone else starts talking about the ghost of their grandmother; she sometimes rearranges the things in their house, or takes them away. Another person’s grandmother was a medium and haunts them, too. Someone else expresses skepticism: How could there be enough room on earth to accommodate the ghosts of all the people who have died? The air would be thick with them. Another person argues that the air is thick with them, and yet another person says that we can’t assume that the ghost form corresponds with the corporeal form—the ghosts may not take up space. I don’t have an opinion but can feel myself tearing up.

We walk through some dirt roads as the sun sets. Eventually, I leave, and drive into the worst kind of LA traffic: night traffic. The road is crowded, it’s almost too dark to see anything, and I keep having to ride the clutch. Near my house, some girls, who look like they’re on the way to the club, have gotten into an accident­­—their car looks totaled, and they’re all dressed in heels, yelling into their phones.


July 30, 2022

I wake up in tears from a dream about my mother dying by a physician-assisted suicide. I call her on the way to the Hollywood Farmers’ Market, and when I try to describe the dream, I start crying. She tells me, laughing, that if her husband ever tells me she’s decided to do an assisted suicide, I should call the police. Then she tells me she’s kidding—she actually can imagine electing to do a physician-assisted suicide. When I arrive at the market, where I go every week, it’s completely deserted, except for a ring of cop cars around the periphery. I google “hollywood farmers market cops.” One article says it was shut down because of “shots fired”; another says it was because a man was throwing rocks off his balcony.

I leave, buy some groceries elsewhere, and then cancel the rest of my plans because I have a hard time making my dream not feel real. It’s hard to know what to do when presented with made-up events that nevertheless produce real emotions. I’m very superstitious and have a hard time not reading dreams as omens, even though I’ve spent many years in therapy with a psychoanalyst and am well versed in the practice of treating them as the strange expressions of repressed emotion.

I try and fail to read a series of random things: a scan of “The Agonized Face” by Mary Gaitskill, which Tavi sent me; the beginning chapters of Days of Abandonment, whose sentences always feel like they’re washing over me—they are long and swollen, as if uttered like dictums in the mounting stages of an argument that will have no end. Eventually I turn back to my novel, which is, I think, probably to blame for all my bad dreams.


Maya Binyam is a contributing editor of The Paris Review.